I think about Ruth Gruber whenever I read about women correspondents in WWII.
Ruth wasn’t exactly a combat correspondent, however. She was an experienced newspaper reporter by 1940, starting first with the New York Herald Tribune. By 1941 she was a government employee, working for Secretary Harold Ickes at the Department of the Interior.
But she didn’t just cover the war. Her personal brand of journalism is what has often been called “the first rough draft of history.” And Ruth didn’t objectively observe history being made. She was a witness and more.
She said, “I had to live the story to write it, and not only live it—if it was a story of injustice, I had to fight it.” It was her destiny—bound up with stories of rescue and survival. She was the witness. And the advocate. Definitely a Girl Who Stepped Out of Line.
She lived the story of the only group of Jewish immigrants coming to the U.S. in 1944, personal guests of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Secretary Ickes sent her to accompany them from Italy to the U.S. Ruth was their guide, their interpreter, and their biographer. She sailed with them, nearly 1,000 Jewish refugees, from the Western Mediterranean through the dangerous waters of the Atlantic to New York.
Ruth interviewed the refugees and took thousands of pictures of their journey. She accompanied them to a former Army post in Oswego, New York, where they were to be interned and continued to act as their advocate and friend. “Mother Ruth,” they called her, their protector.
Martha Gellhorn was another well-known correspondent who covered events in Europe from the mid-1930s through her trip through Dachau at the end of the war.
In June 1944, she stowed away on a hospital ship to gain access to the D-Day invasion and was the only correspondent and the only woman on the beaches that day, helping evacuate the wounded. She noted how difficult it was for women reporters to gain access, saying, “If they don’t want to accredit you, you just do it. Any little lie will do.”
A recent military magazine article on WWII journalists neglected to mention any women correspondents aside from Martha Gellhorn, and gave her a mere nod in passing. Yet she is considered one of the great war correspondents of the 20th Century, having covered nearly every major conflict in the world during her sixty-year career. The Wall Street Journal called her “One of the most fearless, determined and talented journalists ever to have covered wars.”
By 1945, there were 250 women accredited to the allied forces as reporters and photographers. These included the likes of Virginia Cowles, Clare Hollingsworth, Sigrid Schultz, Helen Kirkpatrick and Lee Miller. Trailblazers all.
But much as they had to fight to be able to do their jobs, they now have to fight not to be forgotten.
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